The Atascadero High softball team should have plenty to look forward to heading into next year.
The Greyhounds will have graduated only one senior starter from a lineup that batted .335 and scored six runs per game this past season.
As many reasons as Atascadero has to be optimistic for 2011, though, 2010 was memorable on its own. The Greyhounds lost only once in PAC 7 play on their way to claiming the league championship in a four-game runaway, and closed the regular season ranked No. 7 in the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 poll.
“We basically still have our core group here,” junior starting pitcher Jill Johnson said. “It’s definitely been a great year, and I can’t wait for next year.”
Johnson, The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year, was the lifeblood of Atascadero’s success.
Already named the PAC 7’s Most Valuable Pitcher, the crafty right-hander posted a 1.01 ERA in 1382⁄3 innings, holding opponents to a .227 on-base percentage while collecting 105 strikeouts. Her 16 wins ranked ninth among Southern Section juniors, according to MaxPreps.com.
Also a force at the plate, the 5-foot-7 Johnson batted .349 with 11 RBI — both tops for county pitchers among the PAC 7’s top five in strikeouts.
“Offensively and defensively,” Arroyo Grande coach Kristin Ciecek said of Johnson, “she just seemed to get it done.”
Indeed, much of the Greyhounds’ 23-6 campaign, Paso Robles coach Val Reynolds said, can be attributed to the consistency with which Johnson repeatedly “hit her locations.”
In the Greyhounds’ 15-inning, 1-0 win over defending league champion Righetti on March 23, Johnson tossed a complete game, striking out 18 batters. The defining moment of her season, however, may have come April 21 in a 5-2 win at Arroyo Grande.
Facing Eagles sophomore standout Jillian Compton — an all-county first-team pick whose 269 strikeouts on the season ranked 24th in the state — Johnson finished 2 for 3 with a double and two RBI.
In that showdown, it was Johnson who broke up a would-be perfect game by Compton with a sixth-inning single and ultimately gave the Greyhounds the lead with a two-run double in the seventh inning.
“She’s a great hitter, too, and came through in a lot of clutch situations to win games for us,” Atascadero coach Kara Ferrell said. “Our team just feeds off of her.”
As a sophomore, Johnson was an all-PAC 7 and all-county first-team selection, although the Greyhounds finished 11-13 overall and four games back of Righetti for the league title.
“I grew more mature mentally,” Johnson said.
Johnson also competes for the Greyhounds’ varsity girls cross country and water polo teams, but “by far,” she said, softball is her favorite.
“There’s an adrenaline rush when I face the first batter of every game,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely a unique experience every single game.”
As a member of the school’s Key Club, Johnson — who has a grade-point average better than 4.0 and also participates in choir — was instrumental in organizing the recent re-painting of the Greyhounds’ home dugout, Ferrell said.
“I don’t know where she finds the time to do all that,” Ferrell marveled. “Jill is just a one-of-a-kind kid.
“To have the work ethic and the drive that she does is just admirable. That mentality and that discipline will help her succeed all through college and in life.”
The Greyhounds, who had just three seniors on their roster, saw their run come end in a 2-1 upset at the hands of Dana Hills in the opening round of the divisional postseason.
Also among the stars who will be back for Atascadero are senior-to-be Brigit Godfrey, who batted a league-leading .409, and junior-to-be Jessie Hufstetler, whose 34 RBI ranked in the top 40 of the section.
“I thought our team was very confident,” Johnson said of the mood heading into the season. “I thought that confidence could take us a long way, and it certainly did.”
Johnson, a curve-ball specialist, is looking to hone her drop ball and generally add more pitch speed and movement this summer with the California Crushers, a U-18 travel club.
“I’m not known as a speed demon,” Johnson said, “but I do like to locate and move the ball — that’s my thing.”
In a change mandated by the National Federation of State High School Associations, entering next year, the pitcher’s circle will move three feet farther back from home plate, from 40 feet to 43 feet — a distance at which Johnson has already gathered experience via the travel circuit. Johnson said the added distance will “definitely help (her) out a lot” because it will allow more time for the ball to break.
She won’t be the league’s only star pitcher coming back, though. In addition to Compton, she’ll again duel with a loaded cast of arms, including a trio of all-county choices in Nipomo sophomore-to-be Courtney Cuzick, Paso Robles senior-to-be Amanda Searcy and San Luis Obispo sophomore-to-be Amanda Reynolds.
“The competition is going to be a lot tougher,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be hard to stay on top, so we’ve just got to keep improving.”